Back in 2011, the White House launched an e-petition tool called We the People. Inspired by the First Amendment of the Constitution, which protects the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” the new tool was designed to give Americans a direct way to do just that -- petition their government. The idea was beautiful in its simplicity.
By 2014, however, it was abundantly clear that We the People had become a “ghost-town.” According to Dave Karpf, a professor of political communications at George Washington University, the vast majority of petitions had fewer than 2,000 signatures. Over half had fewer than 500. Petitions that cleared the 100,000 signature threshold might or might not get a response from the White House. The problem with We the People? People weren’t exactly showing up, and the government wasn’t exactly addressing any grievances.
That whole experience begs the conundrum: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Or, to the point: If someone publishes a petition on the internet and no one is organizing around it, does it make a difference? [Crickets]
The dark ages of the e-petition
When the internet made it possible for literally anyone to publish a petition, a lot of amazing stuff was supposed to happen. The moment of signing a petition is, after all, a powerful one. People who sign a petition are expressing their affinity for the shared vision of a larger community.
But most petitions ended up sitting on a forgotten shelf of the web collecting dust. The luckiest petitions (the ones that resonated with people, were promoted, and covered by media) collected a ton of signatures. Not even petitions boasting a ton of signatures could guarantee anything. The problem was that three myths of e-petitions had yet to be dispelled:
Social change culminates in an e-petition: “If you want to see change in the world, launch a petition!”
Signatures > relationships: “The main thing is that you build a huge list of signatures.”
Front-end > Back-end: “Put your resources into the website itself.”
The renaissance of organizing
The times are changing. With "slacktivism" firmly in our lexicon, more and more leaders are seeing that there’s a big difference between just publishing a petition and actually organizing a successful petition campaign.
What is organizing? Organizing is intended to efficiently harness people power for growing a supporter base. Instead of telling everyone en masse to take the same action (eg. signup, attend, donate), organizers focus their energies on raising a cohort of supporters to be leaders in their own networks. The organizing model is frequently illustrated with a snowflake that continuously spreads outward as leaders take responsibility for driving growth in their own domains. It’s a model honed by campaigners in advocacy and politics, but its core insights about the importance of distributed leadership are making a splash in surprising places.
In the organizing framework, signing a petition is the very beginning of a longer path to success. This makes good sense, because the single largest challenge in a petition campaign isn’t getting people to sign — it’s getting people who sign to take the next step. Well-organized petition campaigns thus harness rich engagement data about the petition’s leaders (who’s sharing the petition; who’s recruiting peers to sign it) to drive further action from more people.
At their best, petitions catalyze a sequence of actions from “easier” to “harder”:
You sign the petition;
You’re prompted to share the petition;
You’re invited to take a relatively easy step -- maybe to submit your story or attend a local event.
Once you’ve taken one of these actions, you’re invited to do more -- organize your own event, serve as a recruiter, donate.
In sum, petitions produce signatures. Organized petition campaigns produce new leaders.
We the people
Just this week, the White House’s Chief Digital Officer Jason Goldman announced a host of changes to the We the People e-petition tool, most of them intended to ensure government responsiveness. They’re encouraging changes, no doubt, but far from a panacea.
If the renaissance in organizing teaches us anything, it’s that petitions are just vehicles. Achieving any goal -- government responsiveness, corporate responsiveness, social change -- ultimately depends on people. People who are connected, organized, and led.